Sniping Over Elderly Rx Plan

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt accused Republicans of cynical "rhetoric rather than performance" Thursday on the issue of prescription drugs for Medicare, as a conservative group backed by the pharmaceutical industry began airing commercials on the subject.

The political jockeying came as GOP leaders struggled to nail down final details of their prescription drug bill, tentatively set for a vote by the end of the month.

"The House is expected to vote in the next several weeks on a prescription drug plan that will lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors and we hope that Mr. Gephardt will support our effort," said John Feehery, a spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Republican officials said that while details of the prescription drug provisions were essentially settled, an internal debate was under way on what other Medicare issues to include. Among them was a proposed increase in Medicare payments for health maintenance organizations, which complain the government does not provide enough funds to make the program profitable.

The television commercials, expected to air in 18 cities at an estimated cost of $3 million, are designed to build support among lawmakers for the leadership's prescription drug plan.

One version of the ad is directed at lawmakers who supported a GOP prescription drug bill two years ago, and says they are "working with President Bush to pass legislation again."

A slightly different version is directed at lawmakers who did not support the measure two years ago.

Charles Jarvis, a spokesman for United Seniors Association, said the commercials would air for at least two weeks, the first big advertising volley in an election year with control of Congress at stake. Jarvis' group gets financial backing from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry trade association.

Gephardt, D-Mo., said the advertising showed Republicans were guilty of "rhetoric rather than performance. ... And it's cynical, in the end, and it uses the money of special interests, the pharmaceutical companies, to defeat a program that would really mean something to the senior citizens of this country."

To buttress his claim, he cited a recent memo from Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm, saying that "Republicans passing a prescription drug benefit would go a long way to leaving Democrats with very little on the table to try to use against us."

The memo, which Gephardt distributed to reporters, also reported that voters "perceive the parties as headed toward a matchup of Republicans on taxes and terrorism, versus Democrats on economy, education and the elderly.

"We need more than just taxes/terrorism to win," it added. The polling memo also said "domestic issues trump foreign affairs in congressional elections."

The memo circulated in Congress over the past several days, as President Bush traveled the country to talk about one key domestic issue — education — while House Republicans turned their focus to a second one, prescription drugs.

Democrats are working on an alternative prescription drug measure, expected to be more costly than the emerging GOP plan, and provide a more generous benefit.

The Republican bill is expected to include a full federal subsidy for the low-income elderly and a system of insurance for costs up to $2,000 a year in drug expenses as well as protection against catastrophic costs.

All but low-income senior citizens would have to pay the cost of prescriptions in excess of $2,000 a year, until the catastrophic coverage kicked in at $5,000. The insurance would cost an estimated $37 monthly in premiums.